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Decoding verdict 2019: How a right PM took left turn

Modi’s projection of a hopeful future caught voters' imagination who saw opposition as tainted by corruption.

Updated: May 24, 2019, 07.29 PM IST
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The PM promptly told his aides the claim needed to be robustly countered, and soon the BJP’s aggressive rejoinder was out on social media and TV screens.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his way to address a poll meeting when he saw a news alert pop up on his iPad about Congress president Rahul Gandhi claiming that the Supreme Court had endorsed his allegations about Modi’s personal complicity in alleged corruption in the Rafale deal.

The PM promptly told his aides the claim needed to be robustly countered, and soon the BJP’s aggressive rejoinder was out on social media and TV screens.

Modi went on to deliver a long speech focused on the themes of development and national security which he felt were relevant to constituencies he was addressing, without making a mention of the issue that would end up embarrassing the main challenger. It was not an omission though, as he asked about the BJP’s response as soon as he finished speaking.

The attention to detail and the skill to compartmentalise matters was typical of the energetic campaign the PM ran, slogging through long days that typically began by sending emails to staffers and aides around 5.30am, often setting the agenda before some of them had risen. This is around the time Modi scanned social media, checking the popular pulse and picking up clues that could become sharp political points.

Officials and political aides who work with the PM find the pace scorching as Modi seems to multi-task with ease, switching between political and official work. After his pre-dawn yoga, the PM’s focus in recent weeks has been political. He’s often passed on assessments and surveys or specific points relating to a particular Lok Sabha seat to relevant individuals in the BJP for feedback. A team that has worked with Modi since he was Gujarat CM has come to respect their boss’s sixth sense of what might become a political issue – either a weapon of offence or one that needs defusing.

Looking back to the early days of his prime ministership, a key decision Modi took was not to discontinue programmes like MNREGA which he had criticised as money sunk into pits. Similarly, Modi did not roll back the Food Security Act despite criticism that making 67% of the population as beneficiaries would be expensive, wasteful and almost take the focus away from those who actually needed the scheme.

Having drawn lessons from BJP’s ill-fated 2004 Shining India campaign, Modi did not want to give those waiting to daub the party as pro-rich a chance to say “we told you so”. MNREGA was made more accountable through geo-tagging and more importantly, its payment scheme was reworked to eliminate leaks and ensure faster direct disbursals. Despite making it a flagship programme, UPA barely launched the scheme. The Modi government ensured all states rolled out the FSA and looked to add more commodities to PDS. This was a hint of the welfare agenda he would soon roll out.

Asked if he’s proved critics – who expected social welfare programmes to shrink given the right-wing belief in markets as more efficient solutions – wrong, Modi says anyone who followed his record as CM would have known better.

LAYING THE AADHAAR
Recognising financial inclusion as the key to improving living standards, Jan Dhan accounts were an early initiative. In discussions with officials, Modi had a simple directive – keep the application form simple, no more than one page. Public sector banks led by SBI were the main vehicle of delivery, with the deposits now touching Rs 1 lakh crore. Not surprisingly, private banks lag state-owned ones by a wide margin.

Modi’s ability to dive into the implementation aspects of programmes and his receptiveness to ambitious targets makes him a bit of a policy wonk. But he doesn’t lose sight of the link between political objectives and governance and does not see it as an academic exercise. Modi’s big programmes like Jan Dhan, Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala, Ayushman Bharat, PM Awas Yojana and even Pahal (the give-up subsidy scheme) are marked by a strong focus on implementation through technology platforms like Aadhaar.

The UID programme, hit by infighting in the UPA government, has been a cornerstone of his government’s success in ensuring the right people get the benefits of welfare programmes.

The direct transfer element means a substantial reduction of intermediaries and leaks and therefore less corruption, adding up to savings of possibly Rs 9 billion.

REAPING THE BENEFITS OF MSP HIKE
The political prompt behind the decision to increase minimum support price (MSP) to 1.5 times of costs and the Rs 6,000-a-year transfer to farmers is clear enough. The income support came after farm distress was seen to have played a role in ousting long-running BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and ensuring the party’s exit in Rajasthan. BJP leaders believed that rather than distress factors like drought, the key issue was low prices for farm produce. Growth in farm incomes could not match urban centres and disparity in lifestyles had also become a bone of contention.

The MSP measures had been in the works months before the 2018 winter assembly elections but were seen as slow in taking effect. Income support was seen as doable – again on the back of direct transfers into bank accounts – and the results were evident as the campaign unfolded. Several beneficiaries received two rounds of payments and Oppositionruled states that did not provide lists of eligible farmers were accused of denying funds to agriculturists.

The welfare programmes directed at the poor had a potent political element. They were intended to make BJP the party of choice among a section of electorate that has viewed regional parties with caste and populist agendas and the Congress – with its rights-based approach – with favour. BJP was often seen as an urban party with a North Indian orientation. Its rise after the Ayodhya agitation also led to it making inroads among backwards and Dalits, but these influences tended to be passing. Hindutva helped make BJP more than an “upper-caste and trader party”, but parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party halted the consolidation.

The 2014 election saw a significant section of the poor voting for Modi, persuaded by his “chaiwala” pitch and earthy appeal. They were also angered by the high inflation of UPA years. As PM, Modi understood the need to bind this constituency to the BJP and set about snatching the “pro-poor” card from the Congress. The initiatives to build toilets and houses, deliver cooking gas, old-age pensions and power connections and the PM Kisan transfers helped convince this big and decisive section of voters that Modi was their man. The programmes, along with other initiatives like the mission mode Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, helped establish the PM’s credibility among the under-privileged.

NOTEBANDI: RISKY BUT GOOD POLITICS?
The impact of demonetisation is still hotly debated and was perhaps the riskiest political move in Modi’s first term as PM. It was intended to be a shock to the system and a dramatic measure to attack circulation of black money. Its exact economic fallout has proved hard to map as it was soon followed by another disruptive measure – the introduction of GST. The November 8, 2016 announcement, despite the immediate hardships and sudden shrinkage of daily wage-linked work, proved a political success. It was seen to have seriously discomfited the rich and perceived as being ordered by a leader who was above black money politics himself.

There was a vicarious delight in tales of those with large cash hoards scrambling to dispose of currency and instances of domestic help and other employees being given months of salary in advance.

Success in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, as also BJP’s win in Delhi’s municipal polls, were seen as vindication of notebandi. Despite the return of almost all denotified currency, demonetisation paid off as Modi came across as a leader prepared to take on vested interests. The absence of any widespread violence and relatively swift re-monetisation helped avert political damage. Notebandi supplemented the welfarist approach in securing a broader social coalition for the BJP, with the inclusion of sections that had traditionally aligned with its rivals.

FOREIGN FLAIR
Along with positioning himself as a leader who could think big and deliver on time, Modi’s challenge was to ensure the government’s credentials on national security remained intact. He did so by showing a flair for foreign policy that surprised commentators. He displayed a keen eye for economic partnerships but built strategic relations with the US, Germany, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia and Japan. This was vital in ensuring India did not get isolated in its differences with difficult neighbours Pakistan and China. After initial attempts at restarting dialogue, Modi seemed to realise Pakistan was going to be his principal international and domestic challenge.

The first hint of a pro-active military strategy came with the cross-border strikes against NSCN (K) in 2015 after 18 soldiers died in an ambush in Manipur. The surgical strikes against terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir followed the next year after 19 soldiers died in a Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on an Army camp in Uri. Though denied by Pakistan, the operation gave a boost to the PM’s image as a doer who had called the rogue neighbour’s bluff. The airstrikes on the JeM camp in Balakot in Pakistan were a much bolder operation, with a large force of Indian Air Force jets crossing the LoC for the first time. The absence of any support for Pakistan barring Turkey, and the US backing of India’s right to selfdefence dented Islamabad’s nuclear blackmail.

The Balakot airstrikes quickly percolated to the grassroots. The popular view was that Modi had broken a pattern of defensive responses. The PM used vigorous references to the strikes – “Ghar mein ghoos ke mara hai” – to contrast his government’s measures to the unpreparedness of UPA to hit targets in Pakistan. The argument played well with both urban and rural opinion tending to see national security as a primary requirement.

With the strikes proving a tonic, the Pakistan-bashing theme tied in with BJP’s attack on the Opposition for seeking “proof” of damage to the Jaish camp. Painting the opposition as “pro-Pakistan” sat close to BJP’s more usual charge of “appeasement” as Modi and other senior leaders accused Congress of catering to vote banks. The clamour likely buried Congress’s attempts to raise the Rafale deal as a likely corruption issue with BJP trumpeting that neither graft nor inflation had become a pain point in the election.

Cultural issues such as beef bans and the rise of assertive Hindutva could have been a trip wire for Modi. There was a delay in reacting to the Dadri lynching in 2015 though the PM then followed up with repeated warnings that no one should take the law into their hands. Cases of cow vigilantism attracted wide attention and saw several campaigns such as “award wapsi” and “not in my name” becoming the fulcrum of the “intolerance” movement against Modi. The charge that his rise encouraged militant Hindutva elements affected a section of middle-class sentiment bothered by what it saw as a coarsening of society.

Yet the political damage could have been more but for BJP seizing on incidents such as the controversial attempt to observe the “martyrdom” of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru at JNU by a section of Left and far-Left students. BJP swiftly turned this into a “nationalist” cause, accusing Congress of backing the “tukde-tukde gang.” This, along with a broader rise of Hindu identity, worked to the BJP’s benefit as its state governments made “gau raksha” a major part of their programmes even as a stray cattle problem almost upset the BJP applecart in UP.

The cultural battles saw BJP push for a more unabashed Hindu flavour to its articulation while seeking to corner opponents as those whose arguments echo Pakistan. Is the Opposition ganging up only to eject Modi who ordered airstrikes on Balakot? This was the question Modi repeatedly asked in his rallies.

He captured the popular imagination despite the contentious debate on jobs in the midst of major initiatives like GST and related laws intended to force failing companies to either cede control to new owners or accept a dissolution process. As claims on employment flew thick and fast, the government found itself accused of not releasing unflattering data on joblessness. It argued that spending on infrastructure, schemes like Mudra and the new economy were generating jobs.

The debate is far from settled, but Modi’s projection of a more hopeful future – along with his welfare approach – caught the imagination of voters who tended to see the opposition, particularly Congress, as tainted by corruption scandals. In his campaign, Modi insisted his record should be compared to UPA and kept the focus on Congress’s record of graft scandals. Congress sought to turn the tables through Rafale allegations, farm distress and jobs, but failed to trump Modi’s formidable credibility with voters.
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Copyright © 2019 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service